clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

One reason why GOP candidates are discussing religious liberty more and more

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at a "Rally for Religious Liberty", Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at a "Rally for Religious Liberty", Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya, AP

Religious liberty has emerged as a key talking point for GOP candidates in the 2016 presidential election, and statistics-driven news site FiveThirtyEight has a reason why: Politically savvy.

Conservative politicians argue in favor of religious freedom instead of railing against same-sex marriage, FiveThirtyEight reports, to avoid alienating Republicans who support the LGBT community. More than 60 percent of young Republicans, ages 18 to 29, "favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally," Pew Research Center reported in 2014.

"Mentions of 'religious,' 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' appeared more than ever in this year's debates when referring to the rights of business owners to refuse services to gay customers. It's code … for 'gay marriage,'" said Paris Dennard, a GOP strategist, to FiveThirtyEight.

There have been 49 references to "same-sex marriage" and related terms in GOP debates this election year, compared to 135 in 2012 and 82 in 2008, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, which used data from The American Presidency Project.

That trend line is reversed for "religious liberty" and similar phrases. GOP candidates have referenced that issue 29 times in debates so far this year, a notable increase from the eight references in 2012.

In addition to being a response to growing support for same-sex marriage among Republican voters, these patterns are likely also related to ongoing legislative and legal battles that seek to shore-up religious freedom protections that some believe were threatened by the legalization of same-sex marriage in June 2015.

"Conservative lawmakers claim their religious beliefs against gay marriage face discrimination, not gay couples themselves," The Christian Science Monitor reported in February, highlighting legislative action around religious liberty in Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi and Kentucky.

The Missouri Senate on Wednesday passed a bill "which if enacted would permit religious organizations and certain others to refrain from activities viewed as condoning or participating in same-sex marriage," such as baking cakes for same-sex weddings, The Washington Post reported. The legislation, which faced fierce opposition from Democratic senators, would amend the state constitution to protect faith-based opposition to gay marriage.

By turning their attention to religious liberty, GOP presidential candidates show their support for the people fighting for bills like Missouri's and maintain their opposition to same-sex marriage without throwing it in people's faces, Dennard told FiveThirtyEight.

"What you can fight about is the ramifications of (same-sex marriage), that it affects small business, that it affects Christianity," he said. "You can say that 'values are under attack,' without coming out against gay marriage."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas